Archbishop Georg Ganswein has criticized the German Church Tax process, calling its handling of people opting out of the controversial system “a serious problem.”
In a wide-ranging interview published Monday in Schwäbische Zeitung, the Prefect of the Papal Household and secretary to both Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict also spoke candidly about the papal propensity for “flippant” remarks and the media’s handling of them.
Figures released Friday show that Catholicism in Germany continues to be in decline, with almost 190,000 Catholics leaving the Church in 2015.
With a view to the situation in his native country, Ganswein, who is the son of a blacksmith from the Black Forest region, criticized how the Church Tax System in the country handles Church membership.
Echoing concerns voiced repeatedly by Pope Benedict, Archbishop Ganswein was particularly critical of how the system ties payment of the tax to membership in the Church.
The Catholic Church in Germany received a record windfall of 6 billion Euros in 2015 — about 6.64 billion U.S. Dollars — despite dwindling membership numbers, thanks largely to the strength of the German economy, which translated to more income for Catholic taxpayers.
When Germans register as Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish on their tax forms, the government automatically collects an income tax from them which amounts to 8 or 9 percent of their total income tax, or 3-4 percent of their salary.
The “church tax” is given to the religious communities, rather than those communities collecting a tithe. The Church uses its funds to help run its parishes, schools, hospitals, and welfare projects.
The topic is one of several ongoing debates in Germany, and has been for years. One particularly controversial aspect is how Catholics are dealt with who decide to no longer pay the tax – for whatever reason. “They are effectively excommunicated,” the interviewer suggests to Archbishop Ganswein, and the German prelate agrees, saying:
“Yes, that is a serious problem. How does the Catholic Church in Germany react to someone leaving? By automatic expulsion from the community, in other words, excommunication! That is excessive, quite incomprehensible. You can question dogma, no one is concerned about that, no one gets kicked out. Is the non-payment of the Church tax a bigger offense against the Faith than violations of the tenets of Faith?”
The Prefect of the Papal Household warned that the impression the current system gives, “is this: As long as the Faith is on the line, that is quite acceptable, however when money enters the equation, things get serious.”
The interviewer, Hendrik Groth, also asked Archbishop Ganswein whether he still stands by remarks he publicly made shortly after the election of Pope Francis that theologically, you could not fit a sheet of paper between the new Pope and his predecessor.
“I have asked myself the same question; and judging by everything I hear and perceive, I still positively perceive this to be the case. Considering the base lines of their theological convictions, there is definitely a continuity there.”
Given the external differences between the two Popes, Archbishop Ganswein said: “Obviously I am also aware that occasionally doubt might be cast on this, given the differences in representation and expression. But when a Pope wants to change an aspect of the doctrine, then he has to do so clearly, so as to make it binding.”
“Important magisterial tenets cannot be changed by half sentences or somewhat ambiguous footnotes,” the German archbishop said, alluding to the controversy over the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. He further warned, “Statements that can be interpreted in different ways are a risky thing.”
Acknowledging the cultural and personal differences between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Archbishop Ganswein reflected that “one has to simply accept the fact that his [Francis’] way of speaking can at times be somewhat imprecise, indeed flippant. Every Pope has their own personal style.”
The archbishop said he is sure that Pope Francis will not change his way of talking, even if that sometimes “leads to bizarre interpretations.”
However, Archbishop Ganswein also reflected on what role the media plays in the perception that the Pope is no longer “as solid as a rock, no longer a final anchor.”
“Uncertainties, occasionally even confusion and mayhem, have certainly increased,” he said, adding that the “Francis Effect” some German bishops predicted after the election, expecting it would lead to fuller pews and a boost to Catholic life in the nation, “appears not to have transpired.”